South Park on RELIGION
In preparation for Season 20 (!!!) of SOUTH PARK, we created this special Wisecrack Edition exploring the show’s philosophy of RELIGION over the past 19 years. Whether it be Jesus or Satan, Frosty the Snowman or God himself, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who also created The Book of Mormon) aren’t afraid of addressing religion head-on – even if it isn’t exactly clear where the shows stands on the issue. South Park forces us to take a hard look at what religion really means to us, and in the process, the show raises some important questions that other series wouldn’t have the nerve to ask.
Written by: Tom Head
Directed by: Jared Bauer
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
South Park on RELIGION
Hey, everyone. Jared here. If there’s one word we’ve come to associate with South Park, it’s “irreverent.” In the world of South Park, nothing’s sacred. Most people who call South Park irreverent are using the word in a very general sense, but there’s something…special about the way the show deals with religion, which is usually all about reverence. Whether the series is pitting baby Jesus in mortal combat against Frosty the Snowman or exploring the question of whether Satan should wear a Britney Spears costume to his sweet-sixteen themed birthday party, South Park forces us to take a hard look at what religion really means to us. And in the process, the show raises some important questions that other series wouldn’t have the nerve to ask.
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on religion in South Park. Before South Park was even South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker released two standalone holiday specials that pitted Jesus against an evil snowman and Santa Claus over the soul of the holidays. And both specials ended with the same sentiment:
In the world of South Park, things that seem ordinary can be a really big deal, and things that sound mindblowingly important on paper can be no big deal at all. Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman aren’t at all starstruck when they talk to Jesus, but they fight over who gets to play him in the Easter play. The profound and the ordinary are all swimming in the same soup. When the boys meet God in season three and are given the opportunity to ask him any question they want, Stan asks him about periods. In season seven, they do find out what the meaning of life is: Earth is an intergalactic Truman Show-style reality series on the verge of cancellation. Jesus can’t get anyone to watch his public-access talk show.
And Satan is a serial monogamist who keeps going back to Saddam Hussein, even though he knows Saddam isn’t good for him. The only time religion does stand out as important is when people are manipulating it for their own purposes. And while several town leaders try this over the course of the series, Eric Cartman is the undisputed master. In season four’s “Probably,” he becomes a tent revival preacher and gets rich off the donations. In season seven’s “Christian Rock Hard,” he makes it big in Christian music by taking secular pop songs and making them almost sound religious.
In season eight’s “The Passion of the Jew,” he builds a fanclub around Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ because he sees it as an opportunity to lead the Fourth Reich. In season 17’s “Ginger Cow,” he paints a cow to resemble the biblically prophesied red heifer just to screw with Kyle’s head…and accidentally brings about world peace.
So what’s really going on here? South Park may come across as antireligious to some people because South Park doesn’t treat religion as a sacred subject, and in Western spiritual traditions honoring the sacred is a big part of what it’s all about. As the French philosopher and
sociologist Émile Durkheim put it in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Western religions primarily work by dividing the world into two categories: the sacred and the profane. You always take the sacred seriously, because it deals with fundamental cosmic forces and determines the state of your soul. The profane- not so much. As he put it: “In the history of human thought there exists no other example of two category of things so profoundly differentiated or so radically opposed to one another.” South Park fundamentally denies the legitimacy of the distinction between the sacred and the profane. In the season six episode “Red Hot Catholic Love,” for example, Father Maxie travels to the Vatican to try to end the clergy molestation scandal, only to find that the Roman Catholic Church is an intergalactic coalition ruled over by a sentient giant spider who has given the green light to pedophilia.
Father Maxie bravely tears the sacred Vatican Document in two, defying——and invalidating——the Queen Spider’s authority. It’s a metaphor for the molestation scandal itself: As long as the church was too sacred to investigate, it was too sacred to evolve. The church could only be saved if
someone was willing to desecrate it, or the Boston Globe’s team of reporters for bringing the scandal to light. This is a recurring theme in the series: That sometimes the only way you can save something you’ve made sacred is by desecrating it. This is especially evident at the end of the 1999 film spinoff South Park: Bigger, Larger, and Uncut, where Cartman and Kenny save the world by cursing out Saddam Hussein and making a deal with the Devil, respectively. And in the season seven episode “Cancelled,” the cosmic TV industry agrees not to destroy Earth for reasons that Gene Roddenberry probably wouldn’t have found very inspiring.
South Park also suggests that our concept of the sacred is a little screwy to begin with. Jesus literally walks the Earth, but most of the time nobody really pays much attention to him and it’s not even clear that they recognize him. His public access talk show, Jesus and Pals, routinely gets clobbered in the ratings by Jimbo and Ned’s series, Huntin’ and Killin’.
But let him fight, something he usually has no interest in doing, and suddenly he’s their Lord. He fights Frosty and Santa in the preseries Christmas specials, Satan in season one’s “Damien,” Iraqi soldiers in season six’s “Red Sleigh Down,” right-wing activist Bill Donohue in season eleven’s “Fantastic Easter Special,” a xenomorph in season eleven’s “Imaginationland,” and the Seussian villain P.T. Pityef in season sixteen’s “A Scause for Applause.” It’s a tall order for the Prince of Peace, but it’s the only way he can keep his followers’ respect.
South Park’s Jesus seems to be wellacquainted with what the American theologian Walter Wink called the myth of redemptive violence. According to the myth of redemptive violence, our sense of the sacred——going all the way back to ancient Babylonian mythology——comes from the desire to see good fight evil and win. Wink writes: “This myth of redemptive violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today..
Jesus fights, in other words, because he realizes the myth of redemptive violence his followers project on him is more important than anything he can offer them himself. It never comes naturally to him, but it’s all people seem to care about. When Jesus and other religious figures turn into superheroes, in season five’s “Super Best Friends,” they’re just carrying the idea through to its logical conclusion——conceding the power the myth of redemptive violence seems to hold over every religion. Nothing is sacred in the world of South Park. And while they have faced right-wing boycotts for their portrayal of Jesus and network censorship for their attempts to portray the Prophet Muhammad, Stone and Parker don’t see themselves as heroes.
After all, this is South Park. If they had a bigger point to make——something we might be inclined to treat with more, I don’t know, reverence——they’d probably never admit it. Once you get past its casual attitude towards the sacred, South Park isn’t really all that hard on religion. And one of its major recurring themes is that you don’t have to actually be religious to act like a narrow-minded jerk. Almost every episode of the series features at least one character who’s self-righteous about something, but Stan’s season sixteen character arc as a selfpromotional activist stands out asa particularly strong example. In “Butterballs” and “A Scause for Applause,” Stan gets a taste of what it’s like to be treated reverently. And he likes it a little too much.
What holds Stan back is that every time he’s seen as a hero, something happens to take him down a peg. As soon as he realizes his cause won’t make him popular, he moves on. This is what distinguishes him from his on-again, off-again girlfriend Wendy Testaburger: she doesn’t care if her opinions make her popular or not. She has deeper motivations——and a lot more selfrespect. One of the points South Park makes is that if a movement is run by people like Stan, who are motivated by a deepseated need to be taken seriously, it’s likely to go off the rails. This is as true of the New Atheism as it is of any other movement. In the two-part season ten episode “Go God Go,” Cartman is trapped in the 26th century as three rival militant atheist factions kill each other over branding disputes. The message is simple: Human beings are violent and irrational, and getting rid of religion won’t change that. The difference between Stone and Parker and the New Atheist movement ultimately centers on a chicken-oregg question: Are people ridiculous because religion is ridiculous, or is religion ridiculous because people are ridiculous? Stone and Parker take the second view.
In Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars, the Australian mathematician and science historian Margaret Wertheim argues that in the West, scientific models of the universe tend to look a lot like religious ones. This is, at least in part, because they both labor under a hypermasculine drive for certainty and finality. Insisting that we have to be absolutely sure about where the universe came from and why, even when we don’t have much evidence to work from, is kind of like trying to navigate old country roads without asking anybody for directions. Wertheim, like Stone and Parker, argues that our refusal to accept ambiguity can make our answers to the big questions sound ridiculous. So if all of our worldviews are doomed to be at least a little bit ridiculous, and all of our movements run the risk of becoming at least a little bit fanatical, should we be religious or not? This isn’t a question Stone or Parker are interested in answering for other people. As Matt Stone rhetorically asked Slate in 2011: “[I]f the mass delusion of a religion makes you happy, makes your family work better, is that bad or good?” The series itself has explicitly made that argument twice: once at the end of season six’s “Red Hot Catholic Love,” and again in season seven’s “All About Mormons.” After the entire episode rips on new kid Gary’s disconcertingly upbeat family life and unfamiliar religious beliefs, he finally stands up for himself at the end.
Stone and Parker’s view, that being religious is sensible and not being religious is also sensible, echoes the words of the American philosopher William James. As he writes in Pragmatism (1907): “[The world] stands there indefeasibly: a gift which can’t be taken back… When a play is once over, and the curtain drawn, you really make it no better by claiming an illustrious genius for its author, just as you make it no worse by calling him a common hack.” Essentially, whether it or not it was created by a benevolent divine figure- it’s still life.
Most series that deal with religion as often as South Park does give us an escape route——a religion or ideology we can accept to avoid being ridiculous. What makes South Park unique is the show’s underlying philosophy that being human is inevitably ridiculous, and that there’s no way of avoiding this fate. No matter which religion or life philosophy we adopt, South Park tells us we’ll look silly if we take ourselves too seriously. The question, in other words, isn’t whether our belief system is a joke. It’s whether or not we know it.